by Robert Henderson
Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus
Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius
Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia
Brian Cox as Menenius
Jessica Chastain as Virgilia
John Kani as General Cominius
James Nesbitt as Sicinius
Paul Jesson as Brutus
Jon Snow as TV Anchorman
Coriolanus competes with Roman Chainsaw Massacre aka Titus Andronicus as the least accessible Shakespeare play today. Its estrangement from the modern Western audience lies in its treatment of subjects – patriotism, treason, the warrior spirit and revenge – which that peculiar creature the latterday liberal has been remarkably successful in suppressing from public view, although not from the privacy of the individual mind. It is this expression of these unfashionable sentiments and emotions which make it so valuable a play for our times because they are fundamental to the way in which human societies organise themselves. That is why it should be seen, even though it is not one of Shakespeare’s great plays.
The play is set in the period following the fall of the Tarquins as kings of Rome, an event traditionally dated to 508 BC, when the Republic is being established. Rome is at war with the Volsci. The Roman general Caius Martius is victorious over the Volscian city of Corioli and is granted the additional name of Coriolanus in recognition of the feat and seeks to become a consul, the most powerful and prestigious magistrate in the Roman Republic. He is thwarted in this by an aristocratic pride which knows no restraint and drives him into exile after he refuses to sweet-talk the plebians.
The character of Coriolanus is a common enough one, the great general who turns his hand to politics and finds it a very different business. Wellington is a good example .On becoming prime minister he could not understand why his fellow cabinet members would not simply receive his orders and execute them, but instead argued and engaged in the dark political arts to subvert those policies they disliked.
Wellington is also an exemplar of the post-French Revolution aristocratic reactionary, having an absolute belief in the right and need of his class to rule and the dire consequences of allowing not only the masses but also the rising middle classes to have any hand in government. (Looking mournfully at the first Parliament elected after the Great Reform Act which placed a sprinkling of men of the middling sort in House of Commons he dolefully remarked that he had “never seen so many bad hats in his life”. )
The patrician contempt for the masses may seem to be merely self-serving, a justification for maintaining the status quo which privileges the patrician class. There is an element of that, but it is not simply self-serving propaganda. Elites commonly have a genuine fear of the masses and in societies without any history of representative government based on a broad franchise those fears would seem reasonable. Nor, in undemocratic but settled societies , is the idea of noblesse oblige altogether a sham, for those born into families which have long had social power in a particular area will often have a relationship with the population about them which is based on the duty of privilege as well as its power.
Coriolanus, like Wellington, has a patrician cast of mind, but unlike Wellington who had the manners of a gentleman and a strong sense of noblesse oblige, Coriolanus has only his insane pride which leads him to baulk at offering the plebs even civil words let alone flattering ones and is contemptuous of pleas to remind them of his service to Rome on the battlefield by showing them his many scars.
Wellington saw war as a bloody business to be avoided where possible, although never shirked when necessary; Coriolanus is in love with it “ Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy: mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men. “ (4.5.238)
The idea that war is a desirable occupation in itself is a strange one to those brought up in modern Western societies which ostensibly promote peace at all cost and shudder at the very thought of war, unless of course it is war which suits their liberal internationalist purposes. But the idea would have seemed perfectly natural, indeed praiseworthy, in most times and places throughout history, for the warrior has commonly had an integral role in society.
The basic organising template of homo sapiens has almost certainly not changed from the time when he wandered in small bands. The anthropology of extant hunter-gathers today tells the same story: men are valued for their courage and ability to hunt and fight; the women do the gathering and child rearing. It is not an unreasonable assumption to think that this is the way humans have behaved throughout their history.
To the evidence of present day anthropology can be added the fact that such a division of labour between males and females makes perfect sense in tribal societies , both in terms of the obvious efficiency of allotting different roles to men and women where the women have the task of carrying and then weaning children and in the difference in size, power and body shape of men and women. There is the further evidence of overt male dominance in societies generally throughout history and in most places today. It is also worth noting that primates (and mammals generally) normally have males which are larger and more powerful than the females and it would be very odd if homo sapiens did not display the same sexual dimorphism because we are descended from beings which had this quality.
War not peace has been the normal state for human beings throughout history. There is a very good reason for that. Because homo sapiens is a social animal we have to set limits to the group for without such limits a hierarchy cannot evolve as there is no beginning and end to tie the hierarchy to. Without a hierarchy no social animal can exist because there would be no means of the animal establishing the sorts of behaviours which make social animals work, most notably submission not through violence but by an acceptance of a place in the pecking order. However, such submission has to be earned through violence for the hierarchy is established through physical dominance.
Homo sapiens being self-conscious beings with high intelligence and possessed of language can, even at the level of hunter gatherers or more settled tribal peoples ,do better than simply establish a hierarchy through violence or even physical size. Nonetheless, violence plays a part with high rates of mortality from fighting within tribes being widely reported in studies of tribal peoples. Not only that but conflict between tribes is commonplace. This is unsurprising because each group which sees itself as a separate unit is doing what any other organism does which is fight for resources, whether that be territory, women or food. Fighting between tribes will reinforce the high status of the warrior within the band or tribe.
When societies get larger and more sophisticated they find different ways of developing and maintaining hierarchies such as inherited land and status, but violence still plays a part as the countless violent struggles for political power throughout history show. In addition, the larger the size of a society the greater the potential threat it poses to its neighbours . That alone will make war likely. But the more sophisticated a society is the greater its ability to intellectualise threats from those outside the tribe, clan or nation and to create reasons which justify war and exalt the position of the warrior. This also makes war more likely because it not only plays on fears but creates a social structure, as happened for example in mediaeval Europe, whereby the primary purpose of the warrior class (in Europe’s case the knights) was to wage war.
Even where there is no explicit warrior class in the sense of the knightly class, the martial values still endure. As Europe gradually moved into what we call modernity, armed conflict between societies did not diminish. Bravery in arms was still much admired. Moreover, masculinity generally was admired. When the First World War broke out Britons were at first very gung-ho about joining the fight and as the reality of modern war became apparent and enthusiasm for enlisting waned, British men who did not volunteer were called cowards, not least by women. The idea that it was natural for men to fight in defence of the tribe was still strong.
If this is, broadly speaking, a true description of human society throughout time it is scarcely surprising that something of the warrior spirit remains even in those societies which are supposedly most removed from the primitive. Natural selection has worked to produce fighters and hunters, selected males to protect their women and children, to defend their territory and preserve their tribe. To be a man is to feel that it is natural to want to protect with force that which he cares about and to know that is what women and his fellow men expect him to feel. Dr Johnson’s remark “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea” has a great deal of sense in it.
Even in today’s western world where the idea of violence is officially treated as a primitive aberration, few men find it comfortable to be thought a physical coward, even though physical bravery is often far easier to summon than moral courage. Nor is there a disgust at the idea of violence as such, especially amongst men. A large part of the staple fare of the mass media has always been violence, whether of war or gangsters in fiction or ever increasing reporting of real violence. Sports, especially contact sports, also cater to the interest, they being surrogates for war. (If anyone doubts the potency of sports to substitute, on the emotional level, for war they should go to an evening’s professional boxing and observe the behaviour of the crowd, both male and female. The atmosphere is raw, with the men on the verge of violence themselves and the women palpably sexually excited.
Even in a country such as Britain which is tightly constrained by political correctness physical courage is still applauded, not only by the public at large, but by the liberal elite when it suits them. The likes of Cameron and Blair have been ready enough to fight wars to further their political objectives; more than happy to use the police to silence dissent and every willing to employ personal bodyguards. In their heart of hearts they have no doubt about the value of men with a talent for violence.
As for the population at large, they still genuinely celebrate personal bravery because as Johnson saw “the profession of soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness.”
Treason is an concept which liberals have largely extinguished as a conscious idea in Britain. But it still lurks in natural emotional baggage of the overwhelming majority of people, perhaps even everyone. No one is really comfortable, no, not even liberals, when they see, for example, Britain unable to defend her own trade and industry or control her borders because of sovereignty given away. White, mainly middleclass flight, from areas of high immigration tells its own story of the true feelings of white liberals. The idea of treason is simply the intellectualisation of natural human instincts.
When it comes to treason, the position of Coriolanus is unusual. He has been exiled from Rome despite his great service to her as a soldier. It could be argued that he is not committing treason at all because his countrymen have cast him out. And yet and yet… patriotism is not a simply matter of individual rights and wrongs, something which is taken up or put down by on rational or petty grounds. It is visceral. For all his harshness and desire for personal retribution, his egotism and individualism, Coriolanus is swayed to spare Rome the worst.
That leaves us with revenge. The idea of revenge is portrayed as a primitive emotion by latterday liberals, yet what is recourse to the criminal law but revenge? If a person did not wish to revenge themselves why report a crime? In the vast majority of cases a criminal conviction will bring the victim no material compensation from the criminal. All it will result in is the punishment of the criminal. We may try to justify our reporting of crime by the such ploys as saying “We did it to protect others”, but that does not really work because most people who are convicted of a crime either do not go to prison or receive only a short sentence. Moreover, a criminal conviction may well make the criminal more likely to offend because a criminal record shuts of job opportunities and if he or she goes to prison they may become more enmeshed in the criminal fraternity. The reality is we want revenge. The purpose of a justice system is to substitute law for personal revenge.
What of the film? There are problem with it . The plus point is that the major characters are well cast. Fiennes is exactly right in the role of Coriolanus, his sharp features accented by a closely shaven head being as flint-like as his character’s disdain; Brian Cox brings his natural authority to the placatory and honest patrician Menenius and Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia shows remarkable moral and physical energy for a woman well into her seventies. Of the rest Gerrard Butler as the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius projects the necessary toughness and the Tribunes, James Nesbitt as Sicinius and Paul Jesson as Brutus, both display the moral shabbiness of the populist politician – Jesson in particular is satisfyingly slimey.
There is also the compensation of the language. Even in his lesser plays Shakespeare manages to produce a stream of wonderful encapsulations : “Many-headed multitude”, “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends”; “These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome”.
But there are significant problems with the film. The director has decided (sigh) to set the action in the Balkans during the 1990s and panders further to the cult of “relevance” by using a well known British TV face, the newsreader Jon Snow, to pass comments and conduct interviews. Would that a modern director would do something really radical and produce Shakespeare in settings appropriate to each play.
The film also suffers from what might be called “Troy discordance”, after Brad Pitt’s heroic refusal in the role of Achilles in the 2004 film Troy to abandon his American accent while the rest of the cast, whether English or otherwise, spoke with various English accents. There is the same problem here. Most of the major parts are taken by actors speaking forms of received pronunciation but the others and all the minor characters offer a mishmash of Scottish, Northern Irish, American and Mittle European voices. I have nothing against any of these accents as such, but it is their mixture which creates a disobliging cacophony. Give me an all-American, all Slav or all Scottish cast in the film and I would have no problem. It would also have been reasonable to had one side in the conflict speaking in one accent and the other side speaking in another.
This discordance is added to by the inability of the minor actors generally and Jessica Chastelain , especially, to master the syntactical complexities of Shakespeare’s words.
There was one utterly gratuitous piece of political correctness, the casting of the black actor John Kani as General Cominius, a man who seems to believe that speaking in a monotone heavy timbre rumbling equates to fine Shakespearean diction.
But the pluses outweigh the minuses and the importance and relevance of the play to our own time make it worth viewing.